Within minutes of a nervous Gareth Bale unfurling his jittery juggling skills before 15,000 adoring fans in Madrid, the first confessional tweet arrived.
@meninblazers This Spurs fan is really confused. Hate or love Real Madrid? Can I root for Bale but not the team? Support troops/oppose war?— David Roth Singerman (@singsingsolo) September 2, 2013
It's a question we quickly received a hundredfold, evidence that in England, the choice of team you support is traditionally dictated by local geography over multiple generations, but in the United States (indeed, throughout the new global world order in which the English Premier League is growing like a weed) that relationship is not always forged in blood. Lacking deep roots, team allegiance can quickly shift.
Gareth Bale's leap into La Liga and the closing of the transfer window is a timely opportunity to examine this peculiar phenomenon. The Welshman made the spectacular seem routine throughout his 2012-13 PFA Player of the Year season as he blasted home a European-best 11 goals from outside the box and earned Tottenham an extra 24 points with the strategic timing of his 21 Premier League goals. These heroics served as footballing catnip for a contingent of American fans who were new to the game and quickly became hooked on Tottenham's plight.
On our "Men In Blazers" show, we have always urged new American fans to respect the footballing adage, "You can change your husband or wife, you can change your underpants, but you can never, ever change your team."
Yet for many, Clint Dempsey's sudden exit, combined with Bale's cash-soaked transfer, appears to have exerted an unsettling emotional pull away from White Hart Lane -- in the Welshman's case, toward the Bernabeu. It's a guilt-tinged shifting of the sands that will be only reinforced by the glamour of Real Madrid's forthcoming Wednesday night Champions League match days, a gateway drug to cement the transition of allegiance from the whites of Tottenham Hotspur to Los Blancos of Real Madrid.
However, this shift may be about more than mere shallow roots for a segment of new world fandom. Many American fans are just as die-hard as those supporters who live a stone's throw from their team's home stadium. Yet in an age in which football's transcendent players have sidestepped the strict control of their clubs' public relations machines by taking to social media and building a following that outstrips that of their clubs -- Lionel Messi has 47,698,018 Facebook likes to Barcelona's 44,209,738, while Cristiano Ronaldo has 20,858,107 Twitter followers compared to Real Madrid's combined 10,901,573 -- is it possible to foresee a future in which global fans, freed from the confines of local geography, follow individual superstars more than they do individual teams?
Ian Schafer, founder and CEO of digital agency Deep Focus, certainly thinks so.
"In an age where social media has made athletes more accessible, it has expanded the monogamous traditional definition of 'favorite team' loyal fandom to a poly-amorous one, where 'favorite athletes' can play anywhere," Schafer said.
Lacking even a tenuous geographical connection to either Spurs or Madrid can create a fickle follower, as Schafer admits. "For Americans, allegiance is mostly by choice, and their favorite player changing teams may be a reason for them to do the same," he said.
Rich Luker, the social scientist behind the ESPN Sports Poll, a complex database that recently pronounced soccer as America's second-most popular sport for those ages 12-24, believes there is something unique about football fandom.
"There have always been certain athletes who transcend their sport -- Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and Babe Ruth," Luker said. "Soccer simply has far more than any other sport and happens to have a lot right now -- including Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar and Bale -- that fans would follow wherever they play."
In Luker's mind, this mixing and matching in team fandom is not a positive development. "The changing of teams by supporters is possibly true, but it is not good news in terms of sports. When Michael Jordan was in his prime, 25 percent of NBA fans became Bulls fans, the majority of whom did not live in Chicago but just knew his performances were once-in-a-lifetime, but their support did not last," he said.
He added: "There are always bandwagon fans in sports -- the New York Yankees or the Green Bay Packers have many -- but it is not healthy as it goes away and is not sustainable. If you start to follow the players from one team to another, the winning and losing stops mattering and it is no longer sports but entertainment."
Pausing to express this idea in simpler terms, Luker concluded with a warning. "If a sport revolves around following the performance of a star independent of a team, you are not following that sport, you are cheering for 'American Idol.' "